On any given evening nowadays, veteran Twin Cities singer Mick Sterling might be growling Joe Cocker songs, or crooning some Bing Crosby. Tonight, though, he’s harmonizing like the Bee Gees.
It’s not clear which Bee Gee he is, but it’s definitely not Barry Gibb. The high, fluttering voice at this two-hour tribute show is being handled by Cate Fierro, who is trying to get a full house at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres moving to “Stayin’ Alive.”
She demonstrates John Travolta’s hand movements from the movie “Saturday Night Fever” to the AARP-age crowd. Jimmy Delia, a transplanted New Yorker, is one of the few people who knows he should be dancing.
“A lot of Minnesotans don’t get up and dance in the aisles; they just sit,” Delia said the next day in his unmistakable Brooklyn accent. “Me and this girl I took on a first date, she and I were rocking.”
Whether on their feet or in their seats, baby boomers are boogieing to heyday hits at nightspots across the Twin Cities area.
Don’t think Elvis impersonators or heavy-metal dudes in wigs and Spandex. This new wave of tribute shows is a classy celebration of classic songs, whether it’s the Eagles, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra or a night devoted to one-hit wonders.
These aren’t dive bars or pickup joints, either. Fans are paying $40 a seat and filling posh sit-down venues, such as Chanhassen’s 236-seat Fireside room, the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis and Crooners supper club in Fridley.
Many local bar stars from the 1980s and ’90s have abandoned original music in favor of the sounds that inspired them. Sterling alone has assembled more than 20 tribute shows — from Elton John to Andy Williams and Bing Crosby to the Monkees.
The Fabulous Armadillos, whose members have played with the likes of Jonny Lang and GB Leighton, sell out their annual season of shows at St. Cloud’s 188-seat Pioneer Place theater before they even announce what they’ll play.
Mary Jane Alm, a Minnesota barroom mainstay since the late ’70s who’s now on the tribute circuit, performed more shows in December — 23, to be exact — than any month in her entire career.
“I feel like this has breathed new life into the live music scene in this town,” said Alm, who participates in eight tribute revues and still gigs occasionally with her own band.
For Delia, who doesn’t mince words when it comes to music, these shows are a key reason he lives in Minnesota now.
“In New York, you spend a thousand dollars to sit in the third row,” he said. “There’s great music here. It’s available. I’m staying.”
A lucrative gig for musicians
The prince of Twin Cities tribute shows, Sterling spent 17 years as a bar warrior fronting the Stud Brothers.
“I loved playing the clubs,” said the 57-year-old singer. “I did it really well. That time for me is done.”
While Sterling may be the most visible ringleader, Greg Armstrong of the Fabulous Armadillos is credited with kicking off the trend. It happened in 2006 after he decided to spice up his CD release show at Pioneer Place, which featured a series of guests playing songs by Armstrong.
He asked each singer to add a cover tune. The show was so successful the theater’s manager asked him to put together a themed show featuring the music of the 1940s and ’50s, and then one for the ’60s and ’70s.
“Theme ideas are in our wheelhouse,” Armstrong said — including salutes to the British Invasion and “stadium rock” as well as Pink Floyd and the Eagles.
Tribute musicians, who tend to be in their 50s and 60s, say the working conditions and pay are better than in their barroom days.
“This is more money than I’ve made in my entire career,” said Armstrong, who has played keyboards with GB Leighton and Bobby Vee. “I’d say three to four times more.”
Alm appreciates the enhanced paycheck, too. In the 1980s, she said, local musicians could gig five nights a week and make a decent living. Now her 23-year-old son plays in two rock groups with original music and still has to work a day job.
“For my very first gig when I was 18, I got 100 bucks,” she said. “You play in a bar, even the higher-end music bars around here, that’s kind of what you can expect to get 40-some years later.”
An added bonus: The aging performers can head home by 10:30 p.m. instead of the 1 or 2 a.m. typical for a bar band.
Honoring the artist
Unlike such long-popular tribute groups as Boogie Wonderland or Hairball, this new wave of salutes doesn’t feature costumes or stagy theatrics. And while Sterling might share a back story about a song, mostly it’s about the music.
“We honor the artist,” he said. “We’re not trying to imitate them or dress like them. I think of myself as a fan of their music.”
By contrast, in her Patsy Cline show, Joyann Parker does her hair like the late country legend and offers considerable biographical info and background about particular songs.
Former Prince drummer Kirk Johnson, who produces and plays in a variety of tribute shows, likes to insert artist interviews from YouTube to add a little authenticity.
The subjects of this trend tend to be artists who are dead (Amy Winehouse, Aretha Franklin, Merle Haggard), don’t tour much (Van Morrison, Carole King, Cat Stevens) or charge steep ticket prices (Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Elton John).
One thing they have in common: hit songs that resonate in a way Johnson doesn’t see nowadays.
“There is such a void of good music and an appreciation of how songs were written and how they were played,” he said.
‘A good date night’
Claudia Lawrence, a Richfield schoolteacher, is hooked on tribute shows.
“I’ve seen a gazillion of them,” she said. “Once is not enough. I’ve seen [Sterling do] Joe Cocker two or three times. I’ve seen Johnnie Brown do Teddy Pendergrass two or three times. And Aimee Lee is spot-on as Karen Carpenter. When I like a show, I really like a show.”
Three factors are most important to Lawrence: 1) the songbook; 2) the performers; 3) the venue. Parking is also important. “The older you get, the more it is a consideration.”
Civility matters to these fans, too. They don’t like music bars such as Bunkers, where TV screens flicker and bargoers are trying to talk over the music from the stage.
Bill Gooding of Eden Prairie recalls seeing George Strait at a Las Vegas arena three years ago. The people behind him and his wife were “so noisy that we have been avoiding big venues for a while,” he said. “Chanhassen is a great venue. It’s good, comfortable seating. You don’t have people talking behind you.”
Chanhassen vice president Tamara Kangas Erickson, who curates the theater’s concert series, aims to offer “an easy, fun, safe environment. They can check their coat, park their car for free.”
For Pam Rognrud of Savage, it’s about quality and value.
“I always thought it would be a B-rated tribute band,” she said. “We were pleasantly surprised how good they are.” She purchased a buy-three-get-one-free package for Chanhassen’s concert series.
Calling the concerts “a good date night,” Rognrud said big-name stars in downtown arenas and theaters are overpriced. “The real McCoys have gotten so expensive — $150 a ticket and $20 to park. It’s ridiculous.”
Concepts keep coming
Chanhassen’s Fireside room has filled every weekend but one in 2019 for its tribute concert series. In February, the Dakota has 10 tribute shows booked. Crooners has 14.
“It’s unbelievable how these shows have increased in popularity,” said Crooners music director Andrew Walesch. “I see more artists coming to me with ideas and concepts.”
Walesch, 30, sees the shows from two vantage points. In addition to booking concerts, he’s a piano-playing crooner who saluted Sinatra and Nat King Cole at recent shows.
“It’s about authenticity,” he said. “Audiences can feel honesty and sense your desire to pay true homage.”
Aside from songwriting, the preparation for these shows isn’t much different from any gig. Even so, the irony isn’t lost on Sterling. He started his career in cover bands, playing other people’s hits, then progressed to writing, playing and recording his own songs.
In a sense, he’s come full circle.
“It’s odd,” he acknowledged. But he’s not ashamed of what he does.
“I don’t feel in any way I’m lessening who I am as a musician or performer. I get a lot of joy out of it.”
So do the fans.
UPCOMING TRIBUTE SHOWS
Johnny Mathis: With former Children’s Theatre star Kevin Kirkendahl and guest Debbie Duncan, 6 p.m. Thu., Dakota, $115 (dinner included).
Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gormé: With Maud Hixson, Jason Richards and pianist Rick Carlson, 6 p.m. Thu., Crooners, $15.
Otis Redding: With Mick Sterling, 7:30 p.m. Thu., Crooners, $30.
Etta James: With Kathleen Johnson and Germain Brooks, 7 & 9:30 p.m. Fri., Dakota, $24-$30.
Barbra Streisand: With Patty Peterson and pianist Sean Turner, 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Chanhassen, $40 ($55 with dinner at 6 p.m.)
Aretha Franklin: With Ginger Commodore, Duncan and Johnson, 7:30 p.m. Sat., Crooners, $30.
Patsy Cline: With Joyann Parker, 5 p.m. Feb. 17, Crooners, $25.
Van Morrison: With Sterling, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19, Crooners, $20.
Nancy Wilson: With Commodore, 7 p.m. Feb. 19, Dakota, $20-$25.
Fleetwood Mac: With Pamela McNeill, Mary Jane Alm and Jeff Engholm, 8 p.m. Feb. 21-23, Chanhassen, $40 ($55 with dinner at 6).
The Sound of Philadelphia: 1970s and ’80s Philly soul with Johnnie Brown, 7 p.m. Feb. 22, Dakota, $25-$30.
Frank Sinatra: With Andrew Walesch, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22, Crooners, $30.
Dakota: 1010 Nicollet Mall, Mpls. 612-332-5299,
Crooners: 6161 Hwy. 65 NE., Fridley. 763-760-0062,
Chanhassen: 501 W. 78th St., Chanhassen. 952-934-1525,